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Do You Know the Real History of Oklahoma?

We’re now learning about the tragedy of the1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, but not enough about the history of Oklahoma that led to it.

The region of Oklahoma was part of the territory of North America colonized by Spain, taken over by France, and purchased by the United States at the behest of Thomas Jefferson in 1803 for fifteen million dollars. At the time, the only significant population center in the region was the city of New Orleans; most of the inhabitants of the region were Native Americans. (The idea of referring to Native Americans as “Indians” probably arose from the fact that when European explorers first landed on the shores of the New World, they thought they had landed in India.)

The Native Americans of the region belonged to several tribes, notably the Cherokee, the Chickasaw,the Choctaw, the Creek, and the Seminole. They were called the Civilized Tribes because they adopted much of the American culture at the time. including Christianity, centralized government, literacy in English, White American clothing styles — and slavery. Intermarriage between native Americans and Whites was common.

Pressure from arriving White Europeans who coveted the tribal lands led to Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830. which forced Native Americans to relocate to the west of the Mississippi River — and that area notably included Oklahoma. The new inhabitants of Oklahoma were a mixture of Black freedmen, displaced Native Americans, and slaves.

The 1862 Homestead Act led to an influx of mostly White settlers. who went to war with the Native Americans. At about the same time the displaced Native Americans were forming advanced governments and freeing their slaves. Those ex-slaves, in turn, created all-Black towns that were prosperous communities, free of discrimination.

In the last half of the nineteenth century the Federal government opened the Oklahoma region to massive settlement., including several Land Runs in formerly tribal lands. Meanwhile the tribes were creating tribal governments on the land they still controlled. There were fierce battles between the new White settlers and the Native Americans. Oklahoma became a state in 1907, codifying some of the worst institutions of the Old South.

Two other developments shaped Oklahoma: the rise of cattle ranching and the discovery of oil. The discovery of oil in particular benefited the Black towns; the Greenwood district of Tulsa prospered and became known as the Black Wall Street. But meanwhile the progress of the Blacks was being turned back following the end of Reconstruction. The White settlements fell on hard times while at least some of the Black towns were doing well. White resentment, built up during Reconstruction, led to the growth of the Ku Klux Klan, which not only despised Blacks but also Jews, Catholics. and non-Anglo Europeans generally.

When I first heard of the Tulsa Massacre, my first reaction was “Why Tulsa? Tulsa isn’t in the Deep South! And Oklahoma wasn’t even in the Union at the time of the Civil War!” Knowing something of Oklahoma’s history, in particular the role of Native Americans and the massive influx of White settlers into a region that was not really able to support them, may help in understanding how the massacre came to happen.

For a superb understanding of the Tulsa events in the context of Oklahoma history, I recommend the long but enlightening article https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/unrealized-promise-oklahoma-180977174/

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Paul Abrahams

Paul Abrahams

Paul Abrahams is a retired computer scientist living in Deerfield, Massachusetts. President of ACM from 1986 to 1988, he now writes philosophical essays.